Christof Wandratsch is a legend of world swimming. In 1990s he was twice a european champion in 25 km. For many years he held the record in swimming across the English Channel (between England and France). Last year he competed in Bled Swimming Challenge. Despite his age, he was the winner of our challenge. We talked to Christof during the Winter World Cup where he strung up victories. We talked about his swimming career, open water swimming and, also, about his professional teaching carrer which is very interesting. Read more about Christof in the following interview.
Yesterday it was the first day of the Winter World Cup here in Bled. You won 5 times. What were the conditions like and how were your results?
CHRISTOF: My results yesterday were very good. I was very happy – 5 races, 5 victories. It couldn't go better. That would be impossible. The conditions were really hard, especially outside the lake. It was raining the whole day and I felt better in the water than outside it. But I am happy. I am always happy to be back in Bled. It is very strange to have a summer competition in the same lake as in the winter. It is a nice and a good experience.
As you said, you swim in the winter as well as in the summer in open water races. You are still one of the best open water swimmers in the world. Can you describe your swimming career a little bit?
So, I started my open water career in Italy in 1984 in 10 kilometre race. I won it. Then, step by step I grew up with the distances. My first European Championship was in Bonn. Later, I swam in the World Cup for 20 years. I won many races. I won the European Championships in 1991 and 1995 (25 kilometres). The next step followed in 2003 when the TV company ZDF asked me to make a movie about my swimming across the English Channel. In 2005 I set the world record there. I swam for 7 hours and 2 minutes. It is still the third fastest time. After that, I did many solo swims. In 2013 I crossed the lake Constance which is the biggest lake in Germany. It is on the border to Austria, Switzerland, Germany. The distance was 64 kilometres long. I did it in 20 hours and 20 minutes. I still hold the record. Later, I was searching for new challenges. With my coach Claus Ludwig, my assistant Mathias Sochmann and my manager Oliver Halder we found ice swimming. I said: OK, this would be a perfect challenge because years before I was only swimming in warm waters and I couldn't imagine to swim in ice waters. Then I saw a documentary about Lyn Copfs swimming in ice and I thought: »It is impossible that someone swims in ice waters.« Now, I do the same. It is a very strange and also a very good experience for me.
Was it difficult to adjust to ice swimming?
My beginnings were very tough. I started slowly. I swam in a breast stroke technique with my head outside of the water. I was really cold after about two minutes. But it worked. I started in the autumn, 2013 and in 2014 I took part in the World Championship and won in 450 metres. It was a good step.
You look very comfortable in cold waters. What was the longest distance you did in ice?
In 2014 I did the Ice Mile which is 1.6 kilometres long. The water had 3 degrees and I beat the distance in 21 minutes. I also won the World Championship in 2015 in 1000 metres. I am happy that I can swim fast. I have a big respect for swimmers who stay 25 or 30 minutes in ice waters. I am always glad that I can go out of water after 30 minutes. That is enough.
So the winner is always someone who stays the longest time in the water…
Yes, on one side you have winners who can swim really fast and on the other you have winners who stay in ice water for a really, really long time.
I read on the Internet that you also hold the German record for 24 hours swimming.
24 hours swimming is a completely different story. You swim in a swimming pool. There, you can rest. In open water swimming, you cannot rest.
In your opinion, what is your biggest achievement?
The biggest achievements I think were crossing the English Channel, breaking the record and crossing the lake Constance, the first World Championship in 1000 metres and also the World Cup race in Argentina. The last one was a 62 kilometres long marathon Santa Fe Cologne in front of 1000 spectators. The Argentinian president was also watching the race. These were really the big ones.
In South America, I believe, there are piranhas in waters…
Yeah, but they are too slow for me.
People are usually afraid of swimming in open waters. How do you deal with fear?
I am not afraid of going to the competitions where I know everything is safe. Organisers usually see the safety of the swimmers as the most important thing. I am not scared. I once swam in Cape Town and I saw some sharks swimming towards me. They soon turned around because I had a shark shield. This is an electronic device which scares the sharks off.
So, I wasn't afraid, really. I don't risk too much. I have a family. My daughter is 15 and she needs me. My family is more important than my swimming.
I am not afraid of going to the competitions where I know everything is safe.
What would you recommend to people who are afraid of open waters from psychological point of view?
If they are afraid of open waters, they should always stay very close to the shore, swim next to the shore or swim in a group. Then they will feel more safe.
But here in Bled there is no danger. This isn't the first time you are here in Bled, is it?
Yes, that's true. I love the town. It is beautiful in the summer and in the winter. With the old castle and the island in the middle of the lake… It is great. In this lake I am not afraid at all.
Can you tell us a little bit about the summer swimming challenge here in Bled. Last year the competition took place for the first time and you took part in it. How was it?
It was well organised and it was safe, but you can always do some things better. When you organise a competition you always have to be open for improvements. I believe that the event has a good future ahead of itself. The lake has a good tradition in rowing and if you go step by step…
There aren't so many places where there are international competitions in the summer and in the winter. Maybe you can make a special cup – an all year cup, for example. Swimmers can then come in the summer and in the winter.
Do you have any experiences with the local Slovenian people?
Yes, I know Igor and Nace Majcen. We were travelling around together for many years. I met them in 1989 in the European Championship. We are good friends and they are nice guys.
I know that Igor and Nace don't swim anymore. How do you keep you motivation?
I have a good trainer. My trainings aren't boring and that is my motivation. I always look for new challenges like the World Cup, solo swimming, now ice swimming, etc.
What would you recommend to people to motivate them to stay in swimming?
If you start with ice swimming, this is good for staying healthy and you don't get sick. It is easy, it is a cheap sport. You just need some basics, a swim suit and goggles. Even if you swim for one or two minutes, you do a lot for your health. I also offer swimming camps and aqua camps for people who would like to learn how to swim. It is a good challenge.
What do you do beside swimming?
I am a teacher at elementary school. It is a full-time job. Swimming is a nice hobby for me.
Are your students more enthusiastic about swimming because of you?
Of course. I go for a swim with my pupils, also in the winter. They are very happy that they can do this. Their parents are not afraid when they go with me. They trust me because they know I have experiences.
How old are your pupils then?
I usually teach 15 or 16 year olds. This year, for the first time, I also teach pupils who are 12 and 13.
And they already jump in ice water?
Yes. Every Friday afternoon we go to the lake after school and we swim. They are happy and it is really good for them to do this.
This might be a very good idea for Slovenian schools, especially here in Bled…
Yes, you have a nice lake and there are good facilities in the rowing area. It's perfect.
Christof thank you for taking your time and we wish you good luck!